As I was in CVS today buying massive quantities of half-priced Easter candy (for my 101 students, not for me!), I happened to glance over at the magazines. Usually, I intentionally avert my eyes from the magazines as a sort of spiritual discipline, but maybe I was weakened by all my Easter excesses today and couldn’t avoid a glimpse at the covers. What I saw shocked me. Kate Hudson, topless, on the cover of Glamour (which I am not hyperlinking because I don’t want you to see it, which is the entire point of this post). I turned to the guy checking me out, who was maybe 19.
Me: Can you believe this?
Me: She is topless. This is porn. You have porn in full view of anybody who walks into the store.
Guy: Really? I hadn’t noticed.
Me: Aren’t you offended by this? Aren’t you worried that your eyes are going to fall on this image 1000 times this week as you check people’s purchases? Aren’t you worried that you are slowly going to become desensitized to the grandeur of the female body, that you are going to become one of the many men (and women) who see women’s body as a mere object to be consumed and disposed of at will? Aren’t you worried that slowly and subconsciously, you are going to forget how to love in a way that is fully human?
Guy: Uh . . . Do you have a CVS card?
So maybe I was a bit hard on the guy. It wasn’t his fault that this image was less than a foot from his face all day, and less than a foot of every patron that would visit that counter today. But my concerns are not unreasonable.
Images matter. What we see on a daily basis shapes us, often in ways that float below the level of consciousness. In my dissertation, I explored the way in which women’s body image is powerfully influenced by magazine covers like this one and so many others that portray women as perfectly sculpted, just skinny enough to not look scary but definitely below a healthy weight, and of course, flawless. Body image dissatisfaction climbs after even a few seconds of viewing such images.
In the medieval world, people were fully aware of the power of images. Churches were covered with stain glass and icons depicting the stories of scripture and the feats of the saints. In her book Image as Insight, Margaret Miles explores the way in which the pre-moderns were aware of the power of images and critiques the way in which the people of modernity neglect to appreciate how our character and personalities are shaped by images even before we can rationally and logically analyze the images. In the contemporary period, we tend to think in terms of “mind over matter,” assuming that something will affect us only if we let let it affect us. A topless Kate Hudson is only dangerous if we fixate on it or intentionally misuse it.
On the contrary, Jacques Maritain argues that experience leads to a kind of knowledge that he calls “experimental” or “connatural” knowledge that is foundational in our judgments. Such knowledge is pre-rational and subconscious, meaning that it is a knowledge we possess non-discursively and influences us in ways we may not be aware of. Our judgments about beauty are influenced heavily by our connatural knowledge of beauty, that is, of the images that have shaped us with regards to what it beautiful.
Magazine images like this one on the cover of Glamour lead to a connatural knowledge of the female body and what it should look like and do. Far from being harmless, images like this one shape the way women want to look, and shape what men expect women to do for them.
I encourage you to write into Glamour, protesting the cover and encouraging them to choose images for future issues that do not demean women by portraying them naked, excessively skinny, or overly-enticing. And if you find yourself in CVS this week buying leftover Easter candy, be sure to avert your eyes. Because looking can be dangerous.
Beth, thank you for this post, which is so important. We are a culture awash in images, with a hardened shell about them all, whether of sex, violence, and God know what else. My life as a child was deeply damaged due to exposure to images that I should not have seen, so I understand the ugly power of images and how they can harm us.
About 6 or 7 years ago, I was a media executive in NYC, and I was part of a group of women in media that presented various events. One time we were so pleased to have someone from Glamour as our speaker, because at that time, Glamour was very involved in trying to get away from images that teach young women that super skinny and sexy is the only way to be. I read your post, and regrettably, I did go look for the cover. The photo was one thing, the caption about how “hot and happy” or whatever it said about Kate’s life was worse. All I can say is this – what happened at Glamour? *sigh*
I will be writing to them via the link you provide.
“Aren’t you worried that you are slowly going to become desensitized to the grandeur of the female body?”
Safe to say it’s already happened, not just for him, but for many of us. We seem to have a cultural belief that as long as a person is covered, it doesn’t matter what does the covering. Nothing is unnecessarily sexy unless it’s explicitly visible. I’d seen the cover of Glamour, but I honestly didn’t notice it either. I thought they staged it in such a way that her face and hair were the overwhelmingly prominent part of the photo, and the fact that she didn’t have a shirt on under the hair and necklace didn’t even register. Frankly, she probably could have been wearing a carefully concealed bikini top and placing her arm to make it LOOK like she was topless and the photo wouldn’t look any different.
I did a search for the cover of Glamour, and I think it is an incredible stretch to call it pornography. Pornography is designed to cause sexual arousal. Bare (but covered) breasts do not make a photo pornographic, especially when you have to give the photo a second look to even notice the bare breasts. I am not great at analyzing visual art, but it seems to me the last place this photo draws your eyes is to the arm covering the breasts. The face, the hair, an the jewelry totally dominate. The photo may be objectionable for some of the reasons described, but it is certainly not pornography.
You don’t think the cover of Glamour is intended to cause sexual arousal, which you identify as characteristic to pornography? I agree that her nakedness is subtle, but the fact that you consider it obviously not pornographic proves the point I am trying to make. You just accept that this is a legitimate way to publicly display the female body. I think this is demeaning to women and I think that we are so accepting of a “barely there” mentality that it doesn’t shock us to realize that she is actually naked.
Perhaps we do not agree on the meaning of pornography. If pornography is demeaning to male and/or female bodies, that does not mean (to me) that something demeaning to male and/or female bodies is necessarily pornography. If there is one thing pornography is not, it’s subtle, so I don’t see how subtle nakedness can be called pornographic. I am not trying to prove or disprove your point. I am disagreeing with your characterization of the Glamour cover as pornography.
I think very few people would call that photo pornographic, and although Potter Stewart apparently later disavowed his statement that he couldn’t define pornography but “I know it when I see it,” I think there’s a lot to be said for the point he was making.
I agree that we disagree on the meaning of pornography and we are in good company as your Stewart comment indicates. According to Wiki, porn is
Softcore porn is less sexually explicit and more subtle. My point is that images like this are sexual and are intended to arouse onlookers, but in subtle ways. Now, I love distinctions and a bit of an embarrassing overview of the pornography wiki page shows that there are a lot of different distinctions to make with regards to pornography. The reason I use the term is not so much to describe the essence of the image (and I am sympathetic to your challenge about the precision of my term) but more to instigate a response. This image of a topless woman should not be on full display at CVS where children, teenagers, and everybody else can look at it. And I especially don’t want my little girl getting the subtle message that it is okay to take her shirt off for people. I think images like this are inappropriate for public display and ought to be censored. But the main point that I want to make is that images like this, topless or not, demean women and subtly influence the way women and men view women in our society.